1980s, 1984, Ace Books, BSFA Award nominee, cyberpunk, dystopian, Hugo Award winner, Nebula Award winner, noir, Philip K. Dick Award winner, Richard Berry, science fiction, Sprawl Trilogy, William Gibson
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
It’s almost impossible to find a list of best science-fiction works that doesn’t include Neruromancer; I’d wager most of the ones it missed don’t include 1980s novels. Its backstory is one of legend—commissioned as one of Ace’s Science Fiction Specials, Gibson wrote and re-wrote huge chunks of the early novel, worried that readers would think he was ripping off the aesthetics of Blade Runner and that he’d be “permanently shamed” by the novel. Instead, it was seen as a remarkable leap forward by a first-time novelist, a cultural landmark that created a vibrant science-fiction sub-genre almost overnight. A sub-genre that continues to propagate on shamelessly lifting element’s out of Gibson’s fiction. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I’m more familiar with what Gibson’s influenced—the myriad of cyberpunk movies, graphic novels, and games—than I am with the Sprawl Trilogy that all but created the genre wholecloth.
Case was one of the best computer cowboys ever to run the Matrix. Was, because he was caught stealing from a client, who then damaged Case’s central nervous system with mycotoxin. In a world where the hacker elite see the body as a useless hunk of meat, Case is trapped in a prison of his own flesh, unable to interface with cyberspace again. Suicidal, living on scraps and amphetamines as he hustles the Chiba City underworld, Case has given up on the Japanese “black clinics” coming up with a miracle cure. That’s when he’s approached with a strange offer by ex-special forces operative Armitage and augmented razorgirl-for-hire Molly Millions. His ability to interface with the matrix will be restored to do a job for Armitage, an offer Case jumps at.
The purpose isn’t real clear to Case, but slowly decaying sacs of the mycotoxin—and the promise that they’ll be surgically removed when he’s done—plus the rush of the matrix keeps Case working. His goal, it turns out—and the reason Case is chosen over more qualified interface cowboys—requires a daring heist of the A.I. construct and remaining consciousness of Case’s now-deceased mentor, Dixie Flatline. It also needs the services of Peter Riviera, a sociopathic addict who can project detailed holographic images thanks to some high-tech cyberware. And as the assembly of the team takes them from Chiba to Istanbul to a creaky near-earth orbital station inhabited by religious Rastafarians, Case and Molly investigate Armitage’s history as they ponder what he plans…
Gibson’s world owes much to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; his characters are going down their own dark alleys, but exist in a world as dark and gritty as the most hardboiled noir. His characters are the off-shoots of functional society operating on the fringes, and life outside the law has death as an all-too-easy option out. Even his prose has echoes of noir: between the techno-jargon and imagery are short, direct sentences with a choppy yet poetic pacing. Neuromancer is effectively a 1940s roman noir set in a dystopic future. As a drug-addicted loser, Case is a protagonist cut from the same cloth as those written by Jim Thompson and David Goodis.
While Gibson was capable of some brilliant imagery and very capable prose, what everyone remembers from his work is the tech. Our own web is both more complex and ubiquitous than Gibson’s, a form of real-time communication that transcends the limits of nationality and race and time itself, and is compact enough to fit in our pocket—on our smartphones, a technology the author did not foresee. Though, we have yet to crack the code of interface: the blending of man and machine, the integration of physical mind and virtual world, the hybridization of technological and biological parts into one unified whole. While we can interact with a computer, we cannot enter it; we can enter data but can’t become it:
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.
Other than that, the novel feels like a product of the Reagan years: a Cold War with the Soviets turned hot; Japan as a major economic power through its fetishization of technology and deadly Yakuza; cybernetic prosthetics, from mirrorshade eyes to razorblade fingers; the United States dominated by BAMA sprawl, the Boston-Atlantic Metropolitan Area, a desiccating industrial wasteland replacing the perfectly trimmed ‘burbs of 1950s imagination with oily alleys, flame-belching refineries, and crumbling projects. Gibson’s world is one where capitalism and technology have run rampant and unchecked, where humans being as horrible as they naturally are results in a dark, intimidating future. (Something that comes out in full force in Count Zero, with companies waging corporate war over technology.)
It’s safe to say that Neuromancer has lost some of its glamor due to age. The techno-fetishist future of jacking into the matrix has went from brilliant originality to become a cornerstone of a thirty-year-old subgenre—while it was revolutionary in 1984, its ideas and jargon have been looted to the point where they are now genre convention. Case’s first heist of “three megabytes of RAM,” which puts my Playstation 1 to shame (and not much else). Even some of the language feels dated: the iconic opening line, for example, perfection of clear and concise imagery. Yet how many kids these days have seen the color of a dead channel? All that aside, it’s easy to see the force of prose and clarity of vision that made it the success it was; our technology marches on, but you can see how plausible and lifelike Neuromancer‘s tech is, especially compared to the Apple II (not even the IIe) that was the technological high-point when the novel released.
And in terms of writing, again, Gibson can craft lyrical imagery out of circuits and cables and points of data—it’s an odd fusion of beautiful prose and detailed technical jargon. He can be stingy with detailed explanations, and even a reader with computer knowledge and an eye for detail will be thrown for a curve. It gets a lot of negative attention, particularly due to the complex plot and an open-ended finale that leaves you with more questions than the entire book answered. In fact, he’s an author with a reputation for being hard to read; to me, the 1980s were rich in those kinds of SF authors, creating complex narratives and lifting experimental technique from the ashes of science fiction’s New Wave movement. Gibson breaks many established rules of writing, uses an almost reckless freedom of language, and came up with a work that forces you to think. To me, those are the marks of a great book.
You can still see the elements that made waves in 1984, the radical departure in its presentation of a gritty digital age. It has some dated elements, and as the progenitor it has the flaw that every one of its copy-cat progeny works to erode its originality. But it’s also on all those must-read lists for a reason, returning again and again, partly out of nostalgia, definitely due to its quality as well. The techno-future is one of the most brilliantly realized in science fiction; the way Gibson explores his character’s inner-workings is profound, and the complexity of the overarching plot gives you plenty to think about. Neuromancer is one of those SF novels everyone should read, whether you end up loving it or are confusedly frustrated by it, if only to experience it.